Ecotourism in Costa Rica

Perhaps more than anyone else, it was the two writers of a field guide about tropical birds that were responsible for the ecotourism movement in Costa Rica.

Environmental officials frequently identify the 1989 publication of A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch as drawing the first flock of bird-watchers to the country. The rest, as they say, is history.

The country's leaders, seeing so many of its primary growth forests being felled at an alarming rate by loggers and farmers, established its national park system in 1970. But it wasn't until nearly two decades later, when the birding guide was published, that they realized that the land they had set aside could help transform the tiny country's economy. (Lasting peace finally coming to neighboring countries was key to overcoming visitors’ apprehensions about travel to Central America, too.)

Of the 2.6 million people who travel each year to Costa Rica, many are bird-watchers who come in search of the keel-billed toucan, the scarlet-rumped tanager, or any of the 850 other species of birds. Other travelers are in search of animals, such as two types of sloth, three types of anteater, and four species of monkey, all of them surprisingly easy to spot in the country's national parks and private reserves.

But other people come to Costa Rica to go white-water rafting on the rivers, soar through the treetops attached to zip lines, or take a spin in a motorboat. And many people combine a little bit of everything into their itineraries.

Which raises a few questions: Is the person coming to see the wildlife practicing ecotourism? Is the adventure traveler? And exactly what is the definition of ecotourism, anyway?

Defining Ecotourism

Ecotourism has become the buzzword of Costa Rica's travel industry. From the original concept revolving around travel to enjoy nature, it has morphed into everything from hiking through the rain forest to rumbling over hillsides in all-terrain vehicles. We'll go with the oft-stated definition that ecotourism is "environmentally responsible travel." Costa Rica does itself proud in the domain of adventure tourism and extreme sports, but those activities sometimes conflict with that lofty ecotourism goal. That is not to say that adventure sports can't be part of a green vacation. It all depends what impact they have on the environment and the local community.

Going Green

Over the past decade, the concept of ecotourism has made a strong impression on the average traveler. Many people now realize that mass tourism can be damaging to environmentally sensitive places like Costa Rica but that much can be done to alleviate the negative effects. At the same time, ecotourism has become a marketing term used to attract customers who have the best intentions.

In addition to giving travelers the chance to observe and learn about wildlife, ecotourism should accomplish three things: refrain from damaging the environment, strengthen conservation efforts, and improve the lives of local people.

The last part might seem a bit beside the point, but environmentalists point out that much of the deforestation in Costa Rica and other countries is by poor people trying to eke out a living through sustenance farming. Providing them with other ways to make a living is the best way to prevent this.

What Can You Do?

Make sure the hotel you choose is eco-friendly. A great place to start is the Costa Rican Tourism Board (www.turismo-sostenible.co.cr). It has a rating system for hotels and lodges called the Certification for Sustainable Tourism. The New York–based Rainforest Alliance (www.rainforest-alliance.org) has a convenient searchable database of sustainable lodges. The International Ecotourism Society (www.ecotourism.org) also has a database of tour companies, hotels, and other travel services that are committed to sustainable practices.

Use locally owned lodges, car-rental agencies, or tour companies. Eat in local restaurants, shop in local markets, and attend local events. Enrich your experience and support the community by hiring local guides.

Make sure your tour company follows sustainable policies, including contributing to conservation efforts, hiring and training locals for most jobs, educating visitors about the local ecology and culture, and taking steps to mitigate negative impacts on the environment.

Don't be overly aggressive if you bargain for souvenirs, and don't shortchange local people on payments or tips for services.

Stray from the beaten path—by visiting areas where few tourists go, you can avoid adding to the stress on hot spots.

Support conservation by paying entrance fees to parks and protected sites. You can go a few steps further by making donations to local or international conservations groups such as Conservation International, the Rainforest Alliance, and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Top Eco-Lodges in Costa Rica

The term eco-lodge conjures up images of staying in a remote place with no electricity at the end of a mud road—and indeed, Costa Rica offers such accommodation. But this country also shows that eco can be comfy or rustic, flashy or utilitarian, remote or close, large or small.

Arenal Observatory Lodge. You'll rub shoulders with research biologists at this environmentally conscious lodging near the summit of Arenal Volcano.

Finca Rosa Blanca. Sumptuous accommodation on a working coffee plantation with eco-friendly practices.

Hotel Lagarta Lodge. A tiny hotel with a large private biological reserve keeps an eagle eye on its water and energy consumption and environmental impact.

Hotel Sí Como No. Its meticulous recycling, minimal energy consumption, and community outreach prove that a snazzy resort hotel can be eco-friendly, too.

Laguna del Lagarto Lodge. Rustic and remote, this smallish property offers a variety of nature-themed activities that rival those of the big players.

La Selva. A working biological station gives room priority to researchers, but its impressive slate of environmental educational programs is open to all.

Lapa Ríos. Costa Rica's pioneer eco-lodge manages a large forest reserve and spearheads environmental outreach to the local community.

Rancho Naturalista. The Central Valley's prime address for birding enthusiasts offers you the chance to check 450 species off your life list.

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